Natstradamus Projections for 2015: REPLY HAZY TRY AGAIN

And now the moment you’ve all been waiting for: the Natstradamus projections for the 2015 season!

This year, the projection comes with a major caveat: If Ryan Zimmerman is no worse than a league-average defensive first baseman, the Washington Nationals are projected to win between 95 and 98 games.

Just to refresh your recollection (because Lord knows I need to refresh mine every year), I use a pretty simple projection system to come up with the Nats’ won/loss totals for the year. The whole thing is based off Bill James’s Pythagorean Expectation, and it’s a satisfyingly intuitive way to figure out how good your team is. In baseball, you win if you score more runs than you allow. The Pythagorean Win Expectation model reflects that.

Imagine the whole baseball season compressed into two halves of one inning at Nats park. First, we need to fill up the lineup card of players. Then, we need to know who these players are–I use a four-year trailing average as the basis for these calculations. Then, we need to figure who plays where and when. This is the greatest acknowledged weakness of my system, as I have somewhat arbitrarily assigned playing time based on my impressions of injuries, etc.

At the top of the inning, the visiting teams come to bat. The result of that half-inning will be Runs allowed. Any upper-deck crank will tell you that there are two ways you can allow a run, generally: by pitching badly (giving up tons of walks and homers) or by fielding badly (not getting to balls hit in the gap, dropping fly balls, committing errors). The same upper-deck crank will tell you that you can get out of the inning with good pitching (striking everyone out) and great fielding (robbing home runs, showing ridiculous range, gunning down runners with your arm). In my model, base pitching runs allowed off a pitcher’s FIP (I also use xFIP as an alternative, which normalizes pitcher home runs allowed to a league average home-run/fly-ball rate). Defense is handled by UZR, which handily expresses defense as the number of extra runs allowed or saved.

At the bottom of the inning, the Nats come to bat: time to score some runs. I use Weighted Runs Created for each batter. Since that’s a counting stat, I divide that by the number of plate appearances over the last four years to get the number of runs created per plate appearance. I multiply this by the number of projected plate appearances (an everyday player will get about 600 plate appearances). That’s the number of runs on the board.

When that’s over, I come to some conclusions.

The 2015 Nats pitching staff is projected to allow between 530 (using FIP) and 562 (using xFIP) runs. The 2014 Nats actually allowed 555 runs–and we were already amazed at how good the pitching was last year.

This is a good thing because there is too much uncertainty about the defense to have any real confidence. UZR is notorious in that it needs a pretty big sample size to stabilize–the rule of thumb is that 3 years’ worth of data for an everyday player is what you’d need for the stat to be of any real use. Unfortunately, Ryan Zimmerman, first baseman, is a relatively new creation. His limited time at first base resulted in a comically bad UZR/150 (i.e., what UZR would be if he played 150 games at first base for a year) of -109.1. If true, it would mean that Ryan Zimmerman’s first base defense would be costing the Nats over 20 more runs than he would stand to get them at the plate (~88, by my calculations). That’s hard to stomach. If we follow the model blindly, though, we end up with the defense costing the Nats’ excellent pitching just over 97 runs. If we back off and assume Ryan Zimmerman is at least a league-average first baseman, the defense improves significantly, actually saving just under 12 runs.

So, if you think Ryan Zimmerman is a 100-run liability at first base (and I doubt very much that this is the case), the pitching and defense combined concede between 627-659 runs (totals not seen since 2011, when the Nats allowed 643 runs). If you think Ryan Zimmerman is a league-average first baseman, the pitching and defense combine to allow between 518 and 550 runs (As good or better than the 2014 Nats).

Turning now to the batting, things are more straightforward. The model projects the Nats will score 652 runs. This is lower than last year’s observed total of 686 runs. The projection reflects my pessimism regarding Rendon’s playing time and the speed at which Span and Werth can return to the lineup. I will be very happily proven wrong on this point, though.

Add it all together, and you end up with 95 to 98 wins if Zim is at least a league-average first baseman. If he is the nightmare that the tiny and highly unreliable sample of data UZR has to work with, things are much less rosy, with the Nats winning between 80 and 84 games, and likely missing the playoffs.

Saying Hello to Max…and Goodbye to Stras and JZ?

The Nats have named Max Scherzer their Opening Day starter, which makes a lot of sense. After all, they Nats are paying him an ungodly amount of money. He’s the only one on the staff that actually won a Cy Young Award.

Strasburg, the incumbent Number One, has been down with an ankle injury, so that knocks him out.

But what makes this all so interesting is a recent post on Hardball Times about success rates after Tommy John Surgery. The article looked at Major League pitchers between 1979 and 2009 that underwent Tommy John Surgery, breaking them down by age when they underwent surgery.

The prognosis for Tommy John surgeries isn’t that great. For pitchers that underwent surgery between the ages of 16 and 23, the article finds a median post-surgery MLB contribution of 93 appearances. For a starting pitcher, that’s maybe four or five years’ worth of starts.

What does this all have to do with Scherzer and Strasburg and Zimmermann?

First, it puts Scherzer’s seven-year deal into perspective. The Nats bought seven years of Max Scherzer, a pitcher who did not undergo the surgery.

They did not (yet) buy five years of Jordan Zimmermann, almost five years removed from surgery.

They have not (yet) decided to buy five years of Stephen Strasburg, four years removed from surgery.

Maybe we’ve been thinking about the Nats pitching contracts all wrong. Maybe it’s not Jordan Zimmermann’s distaste for DC traffic that’s keeping him from accepting a contract  extension with the Nationals. It seems to me more likely that Rizzo and the Nationals are unwilling to pay what they consider to be an inflated market price when they have extracted as much value as anyone is likely to get from a post-TJ pitcher.

As for Zimmermann, so, too with Strasburg, who does not suffer the indignity of having his Opening Day duties taken because of an (in)convenient injury. Again, there’s reason to believe Rizzo will be unwilling to pay Scherzer money when Strasburg has maybe a 50/50 chance of providing any value–remember, he’s coming up to that median survival time.

Besides, Rizzo already paid Scherzer money–for Max Scherzer.

This is how it, is Nats town. Given all this, my advice is to enjoy every Zimmermann masterpiece. Make every day Strasmas. Because at this rate, I’m pretty pessimistic about the chances that either of those two guys stays around. From the organization’s perspective, it might be that that this window is closing.

Sign Kang Jung-Ho

I’m going to make this short and sweet.

The Nats need a second baseman. The best middle infielder in the Korean Baseball Organization, Kang Jung-Ho of the Nexen Heroes is available. The Washington Nationals should sign Kang Jung-Ho.

Look at that highlight reel. This is the greatest baseball hype film since the Yoenis Cespdes Hype Video.

Kang is 27 years old, in the prime of his career, plays great defense. From the highlights, we learn that he can hit hanging sliders a long way and punish fastballs that are too far over the middle of the plate.

Does that make him a hall of famer? Not yet. But those are the skills you expect to see in a competent major league batter, so that’s a good start.

The next objection: he played in the Korean Baseball Organization, a demonstrably inferior league to the National League. Fine. Let’s do some comparisons, shall we?

The Nats sold Ryan Tatusko’s contract to the Hanwha Eagles of the KBO last year. Tatusko was the other pitcher that came from the Rangers in the deal that sent Cristian Guzman to Texas and brought Tanner Roark to the Nats organization. Tatusko was a promising pitcher and a fine blogger and human being, but injuries slowed his development. Let’s use him as a rough proxy for the competitive level of the KBO.

During his time in the Nats organization, Tatusko bounced up and down between the Harrisburg Senators of the AA Eastern League and the Syracuse Chiefs of the AAA International League. He ended up in the KBO. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the KBO represents a level of competition that’s better than the Eastern League and maybe not quite as good as the International League.

If that’s how we set our proxy level, how does Kang Jung-Ho stack up against the league leaders? No fancy stats here, just the old stuff. In 2014, Kang put up a slash line of .356/.459/.759. He collected 149 hits, 36 doubles, 2 triples and 40 home runs.

OK. Here are the 2014 batting leaders for the International League. Kang would have led the IL in batting average. He would have led the IL in OBP. He would have led the IL in slugging (beating out Zach Walters and Stephen Souza, Jr.!). Kang’s 149 hits would have been good enough for fourth in hits in the IL, despite the fact that Kang only collected his 149 hits in 501 plate appearances over 117 games. (The IL leaders in counting stats appeared in ~130 games each). Despite that, Kang’s 40 home runs puts him ten homers ahead of 2014 IL HR king Andy Wilkins (with 30).

Here are the 2014 batting leaders for the AA Eastern League. Kang’s .356 batting average isn’t so great in the Eastern League–he doesn’t win the batting title here. T.J. Rivera of Binghamton takes it, barely, with a .358 BA. But you know what? Kang’s .356 is just better than Portland’s Mookie Betts, a highly-touted middle-infield prospect in the Red Sox organization. Kang’s OBP of .459 would top the Eastern League ahead of, you guessed it, Mookie Betts (.443). Kang’s slugging (.759) demolishes the Eastern League leader Ryan Schimpf (.616). Kang would be second in hits, but he got them in fewer games. Ditto homers, where Kang’s 40 is five better than Eastern League leader (Erie’s Steven Moya, who hit 35).

So, Nats town, this is what you’ve got: an international free agent that’s as good (or possibly better) than Mookie Betts. He’s much better than anyone the Nats have in the organization or in the pipeline. He’s available now.

And the only thing he costs is money.

Come on, Rizzo. Sign Kang Jung-Ho.

Nobody Beats the Rizz

I won a MASN contest and got to have a brief meet-and-greet with Nats GM Mike Rizzo before yesterday’s game. I was one of 8 fans who got to stand on the warning track by the first-base dugout and chat. Questions ranged from the state of the Spring Training facility lease (I wasn’t paying very close attention), to the amount of time Rizzo spends with the big league team (the majority of his time during the year).

I was interested in international scouting and free agency. A few things I learned in a brief conversation with the Rizz:

  • Rizzo expressed great satisfaction with the newly-rebuilt academy in the DR.
  • Livan Hernandez does a lot more than throw live BP to Nats batters. He spends at least some time in the Dominican Republic and elsewhere in the Caribbean. With some prompting, Rizzo half-jokingly referred to Livo as the “Cuban liaison.”
  • Speaking of Cuban players: the Nationals keep as close an eye on them as they’re permitted to. I asked Rizzo about the difficulty in obtaining good information on Cuban players. He replied that, given the number of times Cuban teams compete in international tournaments, it is possible to gain some idea about the players they are interested in.
  • I asked whether the Nationals’ sale of minor-leaguer Ryan Tatusko to the Hanwha Eagles of the Korean Baseball Organization signals a new willingness to explore the East Asian market. Rizzo replied that the Nationals maintain a scouting department for the entire Pacific Rim: “We’ve scouted the Darvishes and the Tanakas.” He went on, noting that he, himself, had 20 years of dealing with Asian players and clubs. He added, with a note of wistfulness, that he had scouted a Japanese pitcher during his time with the Diamondbacks–Nishimura, currently with the Yomiuri Giants. “I wish I had him.”

The most interesting thing about Mike Rizzo is that he seems most comfortable talking about baseball. Fan meet-and-greet sessions are pretty awkward, contrived situations, but once he got on to baseball and scouting, he was as enthusiastic as a man in his position could prudently be.

 

What the Hell is the Matter with Tyler Clippard?

Nothing.

Of course, you might have expected me to say that, since this is a post in the same spirit as last year’s “What the Hell is the Matter with Drew Storen” post.

Fine, I get it. It’s kind of hard to like Tyler Clippard right now. So far in 2014, Clip has recorded 4 meltdowns–and it isn’t even May yet. He recorded 8 meltdowns in all of 2013.

And I can see how you might yearn for the good old days–back in 2012, when the Nats were shutting everybody down, Clippard was awesome, right? Clippard’s 2013 seemed disappointing by comparison, and his 2014 is off to a truly awful start. Maybe you wish that Rizzo had traded him, and not Lombo.

Well, I’ve got news for you: if you thought Tyler Clippard was a great reliever in 2011–he is still the same guy he was in 2011.

We know that Clip is mainly a two-pitch reliever–fastballs and changeups. So far in 2014, his fastball averages between 92.8 (Fangraphs) and 93.8 (Brooks Baseball) miles per hour. His change up has averaged between 81.4 (Fangraphs) and 82.3 (Brooks Baseball) miles per hour.

Back in the “good old days” of 2011, Tyler Clippard’s fastball averaged between 92.6 (Fangraphs) and 93.3 (Brooks Baseball) miles per hour. The changeup in 2011 averaged between 80.8 (Fangraphs) and 81.3 (Brooks Baseball) mph. Would you look at that: no difference.

Here’s the thing about Tyler Clippard: he’s a fly-ball pitcher. Over his career, he has a fly-ball rate of 57.2%. In 2011, he had a fly-ball rate of 60.1%.  In 2013, he had a fly-ball rate of 55.8%. If a batter puts the ball in play against Clippard, there’s a better than even money chance that it’s going to be up in the air.

Now, if you’re a fly-ball pitcher, the thing you want to do is to try and keep the ball in the yard, if at all possible. Clippard does a reasonable job of this. He has a career HR/FB rate of 9.1%–that is, of all the balls batters put in play, about 60% of those will be in the air. And of the ones hit in the air, about 9% of them are going to leave the yard. Live by the fly ball (easy F8s!), die by the fly ball (HR, meltdown, blown save, etc.).

So far this year, Clippard’s HR/FB rate is preposterously high: 25%. “CUT THE BUM,” I hear you howling. But look: in the good old days of 2011, Clip’s  HR/FB rate was 9.5%, and I didn’t hear anyone calling for his head then. And in 2013, Clippard’s HR/FB rate was 9.4%.

If there’s an anomalous year in Clippard’s performance, it’s 2012, where he had a HR/FB rate far below his career average (6.8%). In spite of that, he posted a lower-than-you’d-think ERA of 3.72, with a FIP of 3.31. And yet, Clippard still notched 32 shutdowns in that year, while recording 10 meltdowns.

Don’t take my word for it:

So, I repeat: If you thought Tyler Clippard was an awesome reliever in 2011–and, really, you did–then you need to relax about how he’s started out in 2014. He’s still the same Tyler Clippard.

If his HR/FB rate stabilizes above 10% by about June though…maybe start panicking.

 

This has to be the year.

I’m not going to write about how Washington beat the Nats in the home opener yesterday. I already went ballistic about that on twitter.

So, instead, I’m going to write about why you should be “all-in” (God, I hate that expression) on the 2014 Nats. No, it’s not because my projection has them winning 96 games.

Rather, it’s because of this article in the Post. In it, Adam Kilgore talks to Nats principal owner Mark Lerner. What Uncle Mark says  about the Nats payroll going forward is not very encouraging:

“We’re beyond topped out,” Lerner said. “Our payroll has skyrocketed to like $140 million. It’s in the papers. I don’t think we can go much further with the revenue streams that we have.”

* * * *

“We take it one at a time,” Lerner said. “We’ll look at it after the season as far as what we can do. We went into this thing, it’s a business. We’ve got to run it smartly. We’re not going to do something where we’re losing tens of millions of dollars a year. Anybody can understand that. We’re going to be smart.”

 

First of all, the Nats payroll is not “like, 140 million.” According to Baseball Reference, in 2014, the Nats have committed $135.8 million in guaranteed salary in 2014. That’s a lot of money, but it’s not 140 million. The difference of $ 4.2 million could have gotten you another Nate McLouth, say. Or one year of Hyun-Jin Ryu as a left handed starting pitcher. So it’s not chump change.

But things start getting hairy, fast. Let’s look at the young core and see where the trouble might come from:

  • The Nats bought out Ian Desmond’s remaining arbitration years this offseason in a two-year, $17.5 million dollar deal. That means, barring an extension at the end of 2015, Ian Desmond will hit the open market in 2016.
  • Likewise, the Nats bought out Jordan Zimmermann’s arbitration years. He’s under contract for 2014 and 2015, for a total of $24 million. Barring an extension, he will also become a free agent in 2016.
  • The Nats have opted instead to go year-to-year with Stephen Strasburg. In 2014, he’s owed $3.975 million. He would remain arbitration-eligible until 2017, at which point he, too, will become a free agent.
  • Drew Storen is also year-to-year, and still arbitration-eligible after this year. He’s making $3.45 million this year. He will become a free agent in 2017.
  • Bryce Harper’s free agent days are a long way away. In 2014, he’ll make $0.9 million. (That’s right, less than one million dollars) He’s under contract through 2015, after which he’d be eligible for arbitration. He won’t become a free agent until 2018, by my count.

What’s it going to take to keep all of these guys around? I don’t know. But we can make a few guesses.

Desmond is the second-best shortstop in the National League, behind the Rockies’ Troy Tulowitzki and ahead of the Braves Andrelton Simmons. Both of those guys are under long-term contracts, so it’s worth looking at them. In 2011, the Rockies gave Tulo a 10-year, $157.75 million dollar contract. The Braves just extended Andrelton Simmons for 7 years at $58 million, heavily back-loaded. It’s not unreasonable to think that Desmond would demand Tulo-type money on the free agent market. So, 10 years, $160 to $170 million. Call it $16.5 million a year for 10 years. That bill comes due in 2016.

Jordan Zimmermann is likely going to hit the open market. What’s he worth? It’s harder to find comparables for pitchers. But recent research over at Beyond the Box Score tells us that a Win Above Replacement is worth about $7 million a year these days. Jordan Zimmermann is a pretty good pitcher. He’s worth about 3 wins above replacement a year. Fine. That’s $21 million a year right there. That bill also comes due in 2016. We can do the same for Storen. He’s worth about a third of a WAR every year. So call it $2 million a year, coming due in 2016, too.

Same deal with Strasburg. He’s worth anywhere between 3 and 4 WAR a year. Say we believe the hype. Fine. That’s anywhere between $21 and $28 million a year, starting in 2017.

And Harper? His West Coast analog, Mike Trout, just signed a 6-year $144.5 million extension with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in Orange County California. The new contract takes effect in 2015, comes with full no-trade protection, and works out to an average annual value of $24 million a year. Harper’s going to want that kind of money, and if the Nats won’t give it to him, the Yankees probably will (thus fulfilling Harper’s lifelong dream of wearing Yankee pinstripes) .

So the young core that, all together, costs the Nats $22.3 million in 2014 will cost something on the order of $88.5 million a year, collectively, in 2018.

Seen in the context of Lerner’s “payroll limit” talk, here’s what it means for you, Nats town: if you like these nats–that is, if you like these players and enjoy seeing them on the field together, enjoy them while you can. There is no way–none–that the current ownership group is going to tolerate a payroll spike of that magnitude.

Remember, the Lerners acquired the Nationals franchise from MLB for $450 million in 2006. I’m not aware of any details as to the club’s finances, but it’s pretty safe to assume that the acquisition was heavily debt-financed. It’s a sound business practice to take on considerable debt to buy a business, then transfer the debt to the business. So the Nationals, as an organization, probably have a lot of debt service to pay every year. That acts as a brake on profits and investment in the business (in this case, players).

This is to say nothing about the continued swindle that is the MASN deal, that sees Nats TV dollars shipped to Baltimore. Of course, it’s also speculated that the Lerners (or the Nats, it’s not clear) are getting kickbacks to prevent them from pursuing the MASN matter more vigorously.

So look out onto that field and dream big, Nats town. Dream hard. Dream as if your very ability to dream depended on it. Because soon, this team that Rizzo built, that we all came to see? It will be gone. As Denard Span so famously said on Twitter just before Opening day: it’s our time.